The Graveyard Peace in the National Assembly

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After weeks of intrigues, and consultations over the leadership crisis in the National Assembly, it seems the rift is coming to a peaceful end following events in both chambers as lawmakers resume work last Tuesday. Before resumption, APC factions in both Chambers had refused to shift ground, hell bent on outwitting one another. But President Buhari’s last minute intervention in the crisis yielded a fruitful result with the appointment of Femi Gbajabiamila. Also, an overwhelming vote of confidence was passed on the Senate leadership by 81 senators, including those of the Unity Forum that were initially opposed to the composition of the leadership. As things stand, it is safe to say peace has returned to the National Assembly. But whether the peace is that of the graveyard will be seen in days ahead, given that politics is a game of permanent interests and intrigues. What Nigerians now expect from lawmakers who purport to represent them are laws that will directly impact on their lives and conditions.

The lingering crisis of leadership in the National Assembly, has delayed the effective take-off of the new administration. The President himself admitted this fact during a 30-minute breakfast show “Good Morning Nigeria,” on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), where he expressed grave concern about the failure to reach a compromise on the thorny issue of sharing of key positions in the National Assembly. The fracas that followed the rancorous election of the leadership of the National Assembly once again portrayed the honorable members as anything but honorable. Indeed, the 8th National Assembly gained notoriety as one in which members believe in the superiority of brawn over reason, where recourse to fisticuffs at its plenary and in the full glare of the public was the norm. This is reprehensible and unacceptable. When factions of the governing APC engaged in shouting matches that degenerated into fistfights in the hallowed chambers, Nigerians were justified to wonder what manner of persons were in the National Assembly.

While the Nigerian people who voted massively for change and wished for representatives that trade ideas, what they have are lawmakers skillful in trading punches. Regrettably, the reasons the lawmakers were embroiled in commotion, was over trivial issues like positions that contribute nothing to nation building. Yet, it costs a fortune to maintain the National Assembly, to keep it running in the belief that it would stand up to the task of reversing the fortune of the citizenry, that it would as a matter of duty, aggregate the interest of the Nigerian people and articulate it in a dignified manner and, above all, curb the excesses of the executive arm in a manner devoid of rancor, acrimony and petty rivalry.

Even before Nigerians went to the polls in the 2015 general elections, life for the ordinary Nigerian was generally difficult, compounded by ravaging poverty and increasing despondency. Nigerians are in dire need of life-changing policies. Their hope was that the new APC elected representatives would not just to legislate happiness, prosperity and life more abundant into Nigeria but also to reflect their mood and circumstances in carriage and comportment. If they would be true representatives of the people, sobriety would be palpable in their conduct to reflect the mood of a people in despair, bogged down by insecurity, poverty, unemployment, diseases and a decrepit state of infrastructure.

But just like the PDP before it, the APC has itself turned out to be a burden, overbearing and suffocating in its excesses to the point that it is now seen rightly or wrongly as old wines in new bottles. And that the people’s yearning for change was a mere luxurious desire. In a nutshell, going forward, the National Assembly needs to do more to show that it represents the best of democratic tradition, ethos and Nigeria’s values. In the hallowed chambers of Parliament, there is no alternative to free flow of ideas and if there were, violence cannot be one of them. The National Assembly has been desecrated for too long and Nigerians have had enough.

For those who masterminded the recent fights in both the House and the Senate, the simple question they should ask themselves is whether they were elected to specific offices in the House and Senate. Assuming for a while that it is within their constitutional rights to aspire to any position in Parliament, it still would not justify resort to unparliamentary behavior, which fisticuff portends, as there are better ways of addressing this. The National Assembly leadership must find a way of putting an end to this malaise. The House leadership should invoke its powers under Section 32 of the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act 1990 which directs that information be given by the Speaker to the Attorney General of the Federation for the prosecution of an erring member. The immunity a member enjoys from civil or criminal proceedings is limited only to “words spoken before that House or a committee thereof or in respect of words written in a report to the House or to any committee thereof or in any petition, bill, resolution, motion or question brought or introduced by him there.”

It does not protect “any person who makes use of or threatens to make use of any force, violence or restraint or inflicts or threatens to inflict any temporal or spiritual injury, damage, harm or loss upon or against a member of a legislative House, in order to compel such member to declare himself in favour of or against any proposition or matter pending, or expected to be brought before that Legislative House, or on account of such member having declared himself in favour or against any proposition or matter brought before that Legislative House” which the Act penalizes with two years imprisonment. It remains for the Speaker to have the will to take advantage of these provisions to rein in unruly members. At the minimum, he should be able to move for the suspension of an unruly member for contempt as provided by Section 21 of the Act. That is the only way to put an end to this recurring shame of a nation.

Above all, the entire legislative architecture needs to be reviewed. Nigerian lawmakers sit for not more than 181 days in a year and lean heavily on the national purse, a fact that has made contest for positions in the bi-cameral legislature a do-or-die affair, attracting the most unsuitable persons to the hallowed chambers. The APC cannot risk forfeiting the change it promised Nigerians on the altar of political expediency. The way the new National Assembly has conducted its business has been most unedifying. Members can do better. And they can do without such distractions and fight for positions which only further undermine the weak legitimacy of the state by the reproduction and multiplication of the contradictions that the nature and character of Nigeria engender. Addressing these is one sure path to Nigeria’s greatness and one that the lawmakers cannot fail to walk, going forward.

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